Frances Haugen, the American who became world famous as a Facebook whistleblower, fears an escalation of problems if social networks evolve into a virtual world in the metaverse. “We have to take this very seriously,” Haugen said in an interview with De Tijd.
Haugen, 37, who until a year ago was a product manager at Facebook, became world famous in the fall when she came under the spotlight as a whistleblower about her former employer. She published thousands of pages of internal documents. They painted a not-so-pretty picture of the world’s largest social network. The reports revealed that the company above Facebook and Instagram knows the platforms can cause real harm to users, such as mental health issues in teens, and does little to fix it.
This is precisely why Haugen is skeptical about the metaverse. Shortly after his revelations, Facebook changed its name to Meta, signaling his commitment to a future where online and offline merge into a hybrid digital experience. There is a lot of hype about this, but there is still little clarity. Meta wants to shape the ‘next phase of the Internet’ and is investing billions in its development. In a first step, Mark Zuckerberg’s company recently launched its Horizon Worlds, a virtual world in which anyone can move as an avatar and accessible through virtual reality (VR) glasses.
Because Meta already has a lot of trouble keeping its products in the current, livable form for its billions of users, whistleblower Haugen fears escalation if social media goes three-dimensional. Added to this are the gigantic amounts of personal data that will be needed to build that future digital environment.
“If Meta is already having a hard time keeping the unambiguous platforms it oversees secure, what about a combination of hundreds or thousands of apps that have to make up the metaverse?” asks Haugen in an interview with De Tijd. Next week he will speak at an event organized by Mediafin, De Tijd’s publisher, in Brussels.
If we see this as something innocuous, my fear is that ten years from now we will suddenly realize that an entire generation of teenagers has stopped dating in real life.
Let’s not forget that the metaverse is a term from Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel ‘Snow Crash’. A dystopian and gloomy picture is painted there. People feel so miserable that they retreat to a virtual world. Still, it’s worth $20 billion, according to Meta. So we take it very seriously,” says Haugen.
“If we see this as something innocuous, my fear is that in ten years we will suddenly realize that an entire generation of teenagers has stopped dating in real life. Learning to make friends or flirt can be very ‘uncomfortable’, but it is a fundamental experience. Are teenagers, on the other hand, going to make completely replaceable friends thousands of miles away?’
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What exactly is the metaverse? How will it change our lives and our work? In addition to attending exclusive parties, can you also invest, build and invest there? Who sets the rules in this new virtual world? Which Belgian companies have already discovered the opportunities of the metaverse? De Tijd guides you through the metaverse with articles and podcasts. Follow all in our ‘Home to metaverse’ archive.
At the same time, the new reality offers opportunities, says Haugen. Since his revelations, much has moved in the legislative field. In the United States, but especially in Europe. A far-reaching law, the Digital Services Act (DSA), has been passed in the EU, holding internet platforms like Facebook or YouTube accountable and requiring them to be transparent about what content they prioritize over others. The algorithms that control this have so far been protected from snoopers.
That’s why Haugen is optimistic that regulation will allow the next generation of social media to develop in an inclusive way. “If we do that, everyone will benefit. But if we don’t have that intention, we will still have software optimized for profit, not for the public interest. If we want to get it right, we need more people to know how the algorithms work.’
“I hope that laws like the DSA will allow us to apply pressure. The EU can now demand a meeting with Meta and ask what their plan is against the risks that may arise as we move further into the metaverse. That’s a very different world from 2008, when Facebook began to slide from a means of communication for friends and family to the platform it is today, a platform that serves users with content they didn’t ask for. With all its consequences.